BOOK REVIEW / Husbands and wives all at sea in Sardinia: 'Elias Portolu' - Grazia Deledda, tr. Martha King: Quartet, 6.95 pounds

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The Independent Online
GRAZIA DELEDDA was once a name of some international renown. In 1926 she became one of the few women to receive a Nobel prize, and before that had won the approval of such as D H Lawrence. Although considering her 'not a first class genius', he agreed that she 'belonged to more than just her own day', and suggested that her principal talent lay not in subtlety of characterisation or plot, but in her 'presentation of sheer instinctive life'. He was also impressed by her evident love for her native Sardinia.

For Lawrence, Deledda's depiction of frustrated instinct, which for him meant exclusively sexual instinct, was the main feature of her work. Her fiction frequently dramatises a clash between passion and a moral code, but he paid little heed to the other element in the dialectic, that visceral Catholicism which, in a primitive, peasant culture, assumed such a pre- rational, wholly internalised force as to be itself virtually synonymous with instinct. The conflict inside the mind of Elias Portolu, who falls in love with his brother's wife, is not triggered by the dread of social disgrace, nor even by fear of the vengeance of the jealous husband who is also his brother, but by the certainty of losing either the woman he loves or a soul he knows is immortal.

At the beginning of the novel, Elias has just been released from prison. As imprisonment was almost a rite of passage for the poor of Sardinia, Deledda does not bother to establish whether the conviction was justified or not. Imprisonment was a hazard of life, like storms or famine, and there were well-established folk customs to welcome back the returning detainee. The only problem is that his time in confinement has left him pale and frail, therefore almost woman-like.

An interest in Deledda has been revived, in recent years, by feminist critics, anxious to reconstruct the world-view of a female writer who had to struggle against odds to have her voice heard; and one of the more intriguing aspects of this novel is her obsession with the quintessentially Mediterranean notion of what constitutes maleness. The imagery in the peasants' conversations with Elias is drawn from nature, but it encourages him to be an 'eagle not a thrush', to live up to the demands made of men, to drink heavily and conceal his feelings.

For Elias, being a man means recognising weakness, acknowledging his place as less than the angels rather than as more than the animals. While on a pilgrimage to a mountain shrine, he meets and falls in love with Maddalena, his brother's fiancee. But he is prevented from declaring his feelings, which he knows are returned, by a mixture of family loyalty and unmanly indecision. Advice is offered by some of the more oracular beings who hover on the fringes of the society, the semi-pagan Father of the Woods and the sensuous but right-thinking chaplain to the shrine. The two disagree about the value of his scheme to resist temptation by becoming a priest.

Heaven and hell are as much integral constituents of the cosmos inhabited by the Sardinian peasant as the sheep on whom they depend for survival, as the mountains or woods, or indeed as sexual drives. A pitiless Old Testament God still holds sway, and though the world is also permeated by lingering elements of ancient paganism, this is in essence a Christian tragedy of sin and punishment, of the consequences of unleashing the brute forces of lust and desire.

The priesthood cannot protect him against the sting of the flesh, but Deledda's sympathies seem to lie with the moral status quo and not with the liberation of instinct. The novel has the harsh simplicity and grandeur of epic, and Maddalena the helplessness of Hecuba in captivity; but inside Deledda's perspective the conflicts established are irreconcilable, making the ending of the novel its least satisfactory element. The tensions can be resolved only by disregarding the women's interests and focusing exclusively on Elias's quest for inner peace. The wretchedness or premature deaths of the others serve to test his resolve. It may represent the victory of grace, but is a peace bought at an excessive price for other innocent men, women and especially children.